In Brief

HMRC phone delays cost taxpayers £97m

Authority apologised for delays in answering telephone calls and says average waiting times are now six minutes

A report from the government spending watchdog says taxpayers lost the equivalent of £97m due to HMRC's woeful delays in responding to their telephone enquiries.

The National Audit Office (NAO) hit out at the timing of 11,000 call centre job cuts between 2010 and 2014, which resulted in call waiting times trebling and peaking at an average of 47 minutes in the run-up to the annual deadline for paper self-assessment tax returns last October, notes Sky News. Some people were forced to wait up to an hour for their call to be answered, adds the BBC.

Valuing callers' time on HMRC's own criteria at an average of £17 an hour, this meant they lost out on £66m while on hold to HMRC alone in the 2014-15 financial year. An additional £21m was wasted talking to the tax watchdog while call costs amounted to another £10m.

Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said HMRC's overall plan to cut telephone call centre staff and answer more enquiries on its website did "make sense", but this "[did] not change the fact that they got their timing badly wrong in 2014, letting significant numbers of call handling staff go before their new approach was working reliably".

The watchdog said it was concerned that more people may have paid incorrect tax as a result of not getting through to HMRC. Citizens Advice said some people might fall into debt as a result of the problems if they had missed a tax deadline as a result of the wait.

Ruth Owen, HMRC's director general for customer services, said: "We recognise that early in 2015 we didn't provide the standard of service that people are entitled to expect and we apologised at the time. We have since fully recovered and are now offering our best service levels in years."

After the problems came to a head last autumn, HMRC recruited another 2,400 people to its call centres and it is now reporting an average call waiting time of just six minutes. Last month, its former boss, Dame Lin Homer, retired amid criticism of her record on customer service and on clamping down on tax avoidance.

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